Sugar for Biofuel to Displace Kenya's Tana Delta Wildlife

NAIROBI, Kenya, June 26, 2008 (ENS) – Kenya’s Tana River Delta, inhabited by 350 species of birds, lions, elephants, rare sharks and reptiles, is about to be converted to sugar cane production over the objections of conservationists and local communities.

Kenya’s National Environment Management Authority, NEMA, has approved a proposal by the Mumias Sugar Company, a publicly traded company based in Nairobi, to covert 2,000 square kilometers of the pristine delta into irrigated sugarcane plantations.

A view over the Tana
River Delta (Photo by Zuc123)

The government is behind the project, with President Mwai Kibaki expressing his personal approval at a public rally in Garsen last year.

But conservationists and villagers living in the delta believe the decision is illegal and are determined to block the development. The groups are considering what action they might take.

Paul Matiku, executive director of Nature Kenya said, “This decision is a national disaster and will devastate the delta. The Tana’s ecology will be destroyed yet the economic gains will be pitiful. It will seriously damage our priceless national assets and will put the livelihoods of the people living in the Delta in jeopardy.”

“The environmental assessment for the scheme was poor yet the government has defied even those very modest recommendations,” said Matiku, whose 99-year-old organization is the Kenyan affiliate of BirdLife International.

The National Environment Management Authority put 14 conditions on the sugarcane plan. But Matiku says the conditions are weak and ignore the environmental assessment, which showed that irrigation of crops would cause severe drainage of the Delta.

NEMA’s decision also overlooks an ongoing dispute over compensation for farmers and fishermen who would lose their land and fishing rights.

“This is the only dry-season grazing area for hundreds of miles and its loss will leave many hundreds of farmers with nowhere to take their cattle,” Matiku explained. “We refuse to accept that this decision is final,” he said. “The development must be stopped at all costs.”

The Tana is the largest river in Kenya. It flows from the central highlands down to the Indian Ocean where it enters the sea at Kipini with a delta 40 kilometers wide.

A herd of topi, a savannah
antelope, on the Tana River
Delta. (Photo courtesy Tana
Delta Camp)

The district is generally dry and prone to drought, but this week at least 15,000 residents of the Tana Delta are coping with the destruction of their crops by floods.

After touring the flooded communities, their elected representative MP Danson Mungatana is asking the Ministry of Agriculture to give farmers seed for replanting and urged Mumias Sugar to start their Sh24 billion (US$373 million) project, saying all requirements have been met.

“They have a license and everything else has been finalized, let them start the project immediately so that the youth can get jobs,” he told “The Nation” newspaper Tuesday.

But the economic benefits of the conversion of the Tana Delta to sugar cane are not clear. A report commissioned in May by Nature Kenya and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds found deficiences in the calculation of benefits presented by Mumias.

The company says the income from sugar cane cultivation will be US$2.45 million over 20 years.

But the conservationists’ report shows that the revenue from fishing, farming, tourism and other lost livelihoods would be US$59 million over the same period.

The report found that Mumias has overestimated profits, ignored fees for water use and pollution from the sugarcane plant, and has disregarded the loss of income from wildlife tourists to the delta.

The study said the delta’s ecological benefits “defied valuation” and that the proposal would cause the “irreversible loss of ecosystem services,” benefits such as flood prevention, the storage of greenhouse gases and the provision of medicines and food.

Mumias Sugar grows some sugar cane; its own estates provide up to seven percent of its annual output, but its primary source is over 50,000 registered “out growers” with a total of more than 400 square kilometers under cultivation.

African fish eagles breed on the Tana
River Delta. (Photo by Michel
Laplace-Toulouse of African
Latitude courtesy BirdLife

The Tana Delta land conversion covers an area nearly five times larger than the area currently farmed by all the company’s out growers.

Sugar cane grown on the Tana Delta is likely to fuel ethanol production. In 2005, Mumias Sugar Managing Director Evans Kidero announced plans to expand into the production of ethanol to take advantage of the high cost of fuel.

“Until now, Kenya’s support for global agreements to protect wildlife has been excellent but this development could severely damage Kenya’s reputation for caring for its environment,” said Paul Buckley, an Africa specialist with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which is the BirdLife affiliate in the UK.

Conservationists say that an integrated management plan for the entire Tana River basin should precede any development considerations.

The lack of project design documents, required by Kenyan environmental law, has been a critical omission in the whole Environmental Impact Assessment, EIA, process, Matiku points out.

“The current EIA was hurriedly produced and lacks vital information. NEMA should reject it and request for a new EIA study for the new project site,” said Matiku. “The government’s decision to approve the Tana River sugarcane and biofuels project will not only destroy biodiversity but also threaten rural livelihoods.”

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